US rider Vande Velde still in contention at Tour
Vail, CO Colorado
CUNEO, Italy ” Somehow, Christian Vande Velde has slipped under the radar at the Tour de France.
The American with deep cycling roots is fifth overall, only 39 seconds behind race leader Frank Schleck.
If Vande Velde can keep pace with the other leaders in the final mountain stages Tuesday and Wednesday, he could gain time on his rivals in the final time trial Saturday and contend for victory.
“I’m totally content with how the race has unfolded ” more than I ever expected,” Vande Velde said Monday in an interview with The Associated Press on the Tour’s final rest day. “Now I just need to be smart the next few days and smash that last time trial.”
Vande Velde fell two positions after finishing 10th in Sunday’s stage ” the first in the Alps ” but he hung tough, and even gained seven seconds on race favorite Cadel Evans, who had the yellow jersey.
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“Christian Vande Velde is a dangerous rider,” said the American’s former CSC teammate Jens Voigt. “Not enough people talk about him, but he is an excellent time trialer. He is still very close and within striking distance.”
At 32, Vande Velde is riding his sixth Tour. His best previous individual finish was 23rd in 2006, but he also helped Lance Armstrong to victory twice with the U.S. Postal Service team, including Armstrong’s fist win in 1999 ” the year Vande Velde made his Tour debut.
Vande Velde left the powerful CSC team to join the fledgling Boulder, Colo.-based Garmin-Chipotle squad this season, and transformed himself from a domestique ” or support rider ” to team leader.
“That’s the biggest difference. So many times I’ve had decent form but I’ve always been riding for a great leader, whether it be Lance or (Ivan) Basso or Carlos (Sastre),” Vande Velde said at his team hotel, appearing fresh and relaxed despite more than two weeks of racing.
While Vande Velde credits Armstrong with teaching him how to ride the Tour and carry himself, his biggest inspiration was his father.
John Vande Velde was a two-time Olympian and appeared in the classic cycling film “Breaking Away.”
“He was one of the famous Italian guys,” Vande Velde said of his father’s cameo role. “I would never be sitting here if it wasn’t for my father. He’s been my biggest fan and supporter since Day One.”
Vande Velde’s great grandfather emigrated to Chicago from Belgium and the love of the sport has been handed down in the family from generation to generation.
“The cycling culture goes on and on,” Vande Velde said. “They wanted to simulate the old country and ride bikes.
“I have some relatives from Belgium that came over to see me the first week of the Tour, with ‘Go Vande Velde’ signs and stuff like that. I’ve been in contact with them since I’ve been riding over here, for ten, eleven years.”
Belgian media often adopt Vande Velde as one of their own, “although usually only when I do well,” he said.
When Vande Velde was forced to skip the 2001 Tour with an injury, he went back to Chicago and renewed his relationship with his high school sweetheart, Leah. The couple are now married and have a daughter named Uma.
“I think he’s one of the few riders that realizes the Tour de France is not everything,” said Allen Lim, Garmin’s technology expert and physiotherapist. “He probably wouldn’t be married if he hadn’t missed the Tour that year.”
The Garmin squad is owned by Slipstream Sports and run by another former U.S. Postal Team member, Jonathan Vaughters. The American team claims to be at the vanguard in the fight against doping.
“That’s sort of the foundation of the team,” Vaughters said. “I don’t necessarily like the fact that you have to overtly state that in cycling, but it seems you really have to ground that issue before you can get anyone to listen to you about anything else.”
Behind Vande Velde, Sastre is in sixth position, 49 seconds behind Schleck. After that, there is a large gap before the seventh-placed rider, Kim Kirchen, who is 2 minutes, 48 seconds back.
“Really the key for Christian the next couple of days is not losing too much,” Vaughters said. “He just has to tread water and not lose too much and it could be good.”
Next month, Vande Velde will compete for the United States at the Beijing Olympics. And he has already started to think about 2009.
“I’m not going to change a thing for next year’s Tour,” he said. “But my confidence has changed tenfold.”
AP Sports Writer Jerome Pugmire contributed to this report.